Seattle puts itself on record opposing coal export projects

The Seattle City Council on May 29 unanimously passed a resolution stating Seattle’s opposition to the transportation of coal through Seattle as part of a coal export terminal project in the state of Washington.

The resolution highlights the negative impacts on the climate as well as regional impacts on human health and rail and freight traffic from the significant increase in coal trains that would run through Seattle, the council said.

“Seattle has a commitment to fight climate change and become a carbon neutral city by 2050,” said council member Mike O’Brien, chair of the Energy and Environment Committee and prime sponsor of the resolution. “Seattle could be the cleanest, greenest city in the world and we will be failing in our efforts to prevent climate change if we don’t speak out against efforts like this to ship tens of millions of tons of coal to China and India.”

There are currently four coal exports under permit review in the Northwest that collectively could increase U.S. coal exports by 150 million tons of coal annually, the council noted. Coal transported to the proposed Gateway Terminal at Cherry Point in Bellingham, Wash., could increase coal train traffic in Seattle from the current average of one to nine coal trains daily, the council said.

“We have serious concerns about what a nine-fold increase in uncovered coal trains through Seattle would have on local health and traffic,” said O’Brien. “For people who live near the rail line, we are concerned about increased exposure to harmful coal dust from the tops of these uncovered coal trains. An increase in coal train traffic through Seattle could also adversely impact traffic and freight mobility. The resolution asks the railroads to work with the City to mitigate any negative health and traffic impacts.”

With this resolution, Seattle has become the seventh city in Washington to officially voice its concerns about the proposed expansion of coal exports, including Bainbridge Island, Camas, Edmonds, Marysville, Stevenson and Washougal. In May, Seattle joined jurisdictions and elected officials throughout the region calling for a programmatic environmental impact statement that would study the collective impacts of the four proposed terminals in the Northwest. The site-specific EIS is expected to begin on the proposed terminal at Cherry Point this summer.

State Ecology Department is part of review process

Pacific International Terminals, a subsidiary of SSA Marine, has proposed building a deep-water marine terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County,” said the website of the Washington Department of Ecology. “The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal would handle import and export of up to 54 million dry metric tons per year of bulk commodities, mostly exporting coal. In a related project, BNSF Railway Inc. has proposed adding rail facilities adjacent to the terminal site and installing a second track along the six-mile Custer Spur.”

Pacific International Terminals has submitted development applications to Whatcom County and other agencies. In 1997, Whatcom County issued a shoreline substantial development permit and a major development permit for the terminal. Because of changes to the size and scope of the proposal, the county has determined that a new shoreline permit is required for the project. The project must undergo a full environmental review before the company can obtain a new shoreline permit or other permits required for the project, the Department of Ecology noted.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Ecology and Whatcom County will conduct a coordinated environmental review of the Pacific International and BNSF applications under the National Environmental Policy Act and the State Environmental Policy Act. The agencies have determined that the proposed export terminal and associated rail expansion require an EIS.

The agencies plan to begin the public-input scoping process about what should be in the EIS in June, then a contractor will start writing the EIS this fall. A draft EIS would be issued in the fall of 2013, with a final EIS due out in March 2014.

Ecology Department seeks cumulative terminal impact study

In a May 7 letter and accompanying comments sent to the Corps about another coal export project, the Coyote Island Terminals in Oregon, the Washington Department of Ecology said that several coal terminal projects should be considered together. The Coyote Island proposal would entail the coal traveling by train from the Powder River Basin to the Port of Morrow, then it would be loaded onto barges and travel on the Columbia River to Port Westward. At Port Westward, the coal would be loaded onto Panamax vessels and shipped to Asia. At full build-out, the facility proposes to annually ship 8.8 million tons of coal.

“There are permit applications pending for three other coal export facilities in the Pacific Northwest,” said the Department of Ecology letter to the Corps. “SSA Marine has submitted an application for a coal export facility in Whatcom County, Washington at Cherry Point, with annual export of 48 million tons at full build-out. Millennium Bulk Logistics (a subsidiary of Ambre Energy, like Coyote Island Terminals) has submitted an application for a coal export facility in Longview, Washington with annual export capacity of 44 million tons at full build-out. A dredging permit at Coos Bay, Oregon is currently under appeal, with expectations that the dredging will accommodate a coal export facility with approximate annual export capacity of 10 million tons. All of these facilities would entail transport of coal by train from the Powder River Basin to their Oregon and Washington locations, followed by shipment overseas to Asian markets. There are also two other permit applications expected at two separate sites at the Port of St. Helens, Oregon and Hoquiam, Washington.”

The Ecology Department said some of these projects could have cumulative impacts on the Columbia River, which runs between Oregon and Washington. “For background, in 2010, the number of vessels entering the Columbia River bound for Washington or Oregon ports, was 1,467 cargo vessels and 116 tank ships. At maximum capacity under the Port of Morrow proposal, there would be 156 more cargo ships. Additionally, 1,248 more barge trips would substantially increase barge traffic upriver. Thus, for this project alone, there would be an 11% increase in cargo vessel traffic and an even more significant increase in barge traffic upriver. The cumulative impact from all the planned coal projects would be even greater. This sizable increase cannot simply be folded into the current infrastructure or operational processes on the Columbia River. In addition, the Columbia River system is a confined river system with multiple ports, a breaking coastal bar at the entrance, and no federal vessel traffic system, all of which increase the potential for risk. Vessel impacts from this project (singly and cumulatively) could be significant and should be analyzed.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.